“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” goes one of the more famous opening lines in English literature, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
That’s Jane Austen, beginning her 1813 “Pride and Prejudice.” Austen herself has nothing to do with “Mr. Malcolm’s List,” the clever, entertaining and delectably pretty new film starring Freida Pinto — but also everything. It’s our collective thirst for such Regency-era “comedies of manners,” examining the intense matchmaking activity of a certain level of British society, that has given rise to this, to TV’s “Bridgerton,” to the 2020 “Emma” adaptation with Anya Taylor-Joy, and other films too numerous to name.
Of course, you might ask, at a time of such turbulence in the world, what do 19th century upper-class romantic machinations have to do with, well, anything? To which we say: Whatever! Bring it on. Distract us with your lovely frocks flowing straight from the bosom, your exquisite bonnets with feathers, your real-estate porn in the countryside and your smart dinner-table repartee. We could do a lot worse.
There’s one key element in which “Mr. Malcolm’s List, ” a story of love, friendship and revenge served on a porcelain plate, diverges from previous Regency-era comedies (but aligns with “Bridgerton”): its diverse casting. Director Emma Holly Jones, working from a script (and novel) by Suzanne Allain, has said she was inspired by Broadway’s “Hamilton,” in which American history’s famous characters are portrayed by a non-white cast.
Here, the cast is led by British-Nigerian actor Sopé Dìrísù as the titular Mr. Malcolm, Zawe Ashton as the scheming Julia, and Pinto as the noble Selina, who serves as a reluctant pawn in this triangular tale. All three are excellent, but Ashton is particularly mesmerizing — to be fair, she gets the meatiest role by far, and it’s always better to play complicated than noble (though sometimes Julia veers dangerously into the downright mean). Supporting roles are ably filled, especially by an appealing Oliver Jackson-Cohen in the best-friend role as Julia’s cousin, and a ridiculously dashing Theo James as, well, a ridiculously dashing captain.
But let’s talk marriage, shall we?
Because marriage is the only goal here — and everyone knows it, even the child versions of Julia and Selina, whom we meet at boarding school in a brief prelude. Selina, the daughter of a country vicar, notes that she has little means to offer an eventual husband. Julia, ever the pragmatist, promises she will find Selina a mate — once her own marriage has been secured.
Sixteen years later, we’re in 1818 London and Julia’s on the hunt. She manages to wangle a date with wealthy Jeremy Malcolm, the town’s most eligible bachelor. But at the opera, he tests her knowledge. She knows nothing about opera, nor can she answer his question about the Corn Laws. He yawns, a development noticed across the theater in a box, where other young ladies snipe that after four unsuccessful “seasons” in the marriage market, Julia really should step aside.
Things really get bad for Julia when an unflattering comic sketch, or caricature, circulates in the press — a sort of Regency-era social media diss — showing her being spurned by Jeremy. “I am ruined,” she laments. She consults her cousin Cassidy, who’s friends with Jeremy and lets on that the wealthy bachelor has an actual list of qualifications for an eventual bride.
Ever more humiliated, Julia hatches a plan: She will groom a willing candidate to fit all Jeremy’s qualifications, and then, once he’s ready to propose, give the snobbish man a taste of his own medicine.
Enter Selina, who’s beautiful and intelligent if not wealthy. Julia brings her for an extended stay in London. Reluctantly, Selina agrees to the scheme, but soon discovers Jeremy is not the insufferable snob Julia has described. In fact, he’s a sweet and thoughtful man, justifiably wary of fortune-hungry schemers (rather like Julia).
So what’s a poor vicar’s daughter to do? Clearly, as the couple slowly falls in love, there will be tears and missed signals and misunderstandings.
There will also be walks in pristine gardens, cups of tea consumed in exquisitely appointed sitting rooms, parties and dancing. Also, a costume ball! Once we hear that, we know there’s going to an identity mix-up of vast proportions — and very nice garments.
But in an Austenesque world, matches are ultimately made, of course. Nobody is left out — everybody gets a spouse, as Oprah might say! Even the amusingly dry footman (Divian Ladwa) finds his match, as we learn in an ending credits sequence well worth sitting through.
It’s almost enough to make you forget that in the 21st century, getting married isn’t the panacea that’s presented here. But no matter. This is 1818, and it’s certainly relaxing to visit a time when things WERE so simple — at least, in screenplays. How calming to spend two hours absolutely knowing, to paraphrase an English writer of a different era, that all will be well that ends well.
“Mr. Malcolm’s List,” a Bleecker Street release, has been rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some smoking and mild language.” Running time: 117 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested, Some material may not be suitable for children.
Follow Jocelyn Noveck on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JocelynNoveckAP.